The Powerful Learning Practice Model

Research-based professional learning

A vast body of literature underlies the connected learning community model — our three-pronged approach at Powerful Learning Practice.

Below you will find the studies and literature most relevant to connected learning in the digital age. We also offer supporting points to help the reader understand the rationale behind the PLP learning model.


Professional Learning Communities

The literature proposes the characteristics of professional learning communities in which educators are connected and engage in face-to-face collaboration: collaborative learning with a purposeful shared vision and practice and a focus on inquiry and improvement building (Hord, 1997, 2003). Kruse, Louis, and Bryk (1995), Little (1993), and McLaughlin and Talbert (2001) concur with Hord’s findings and suggest that professional learning community members engage in reflective conversations and exhibit mutual support for each other, while DuFour (2004) suggests that professional learning communities focus on learning and result in a culture of collaboration with the clear purpose of affecting professional practice and improving student achievement.

These characteristics found in the literature collaborative learning, shared vision, reflective conversations, a focus on inquiry, and improved student learning clearly align with dispositions of connected learning.


The literature notes a number of theories relevant to professional learning communities; the underlying assumptions of each of these theories play a prominent role in the self-directed 21st century learning of a connected educator. The social nature of learning is found throughout (Bandura, 1977; Wenger, 2007); adult learning theory is also evident. Galluci (2007) alludes to Vygotskian theory as she examines the shift from private to publicly shared learning. Wood (2007) identifies a “Deweyan approach” when educators participate in collaborative, inquiry-based discussions. Theories of situated learning in communities of practice, in which learning and practice go hand-in-hand in a social environment where discussions of practice among experts are indispensable to novice practitioners (Lave & Wenger, 1991), are woven throughout the literature. In addition, Schmoker (2004) and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform (2004) recognize an alignment with adult development theory that is found in the self-directed, job-embedded problem solving that occurs in professional learning communities.

These underlying theories, which posit social learning, collaborative inquiry, and a movement from private to public, are a basic piece of the foundation of connected learning.

Experience and Knowledge

The literature indicates members of professional learning communities focus on relationships around learning (Stoll et al., 2006), relationships comparable to those needed for and found in 21st century connected learning. Annenberg Institute for School Reform (2004) notes a commitment to improve practice and knowledge of content, while DuFour (2004) concludes that members are committed to improvement where perseverance is important. The National School Reform Faculty (2008) found openness, trust, and supportive leadership to be important when working with critical friends’ groups in learning communities. Wood (2007) notes the ability to manage conflict and build consensus are needed skills.

The critical place of collegial relationships in connected learning is well supported in the literature, as is the need for trust and openness. Educators who value the experience and knowledge brought to professional learning communities have begun to travel the path of connected learning.

Effectiveness for Teacher Professional Development

Are professional learning communities a viable means to improve teacher learning? Determining professional learning communities’ effectiveness is a challenge given their collaborative structure and broad goals and that the literature around this topic often uses descriptive case studies of individual groups. Yet indications are that the connected, collaborative learning characteristics of professional learning communities do result in positive shifts in educator learning. Fullan (2006) proposes that how a professional learning community impacts improvement in a particular school or district may be a meaningful measure of effectiveness. In a review of eleven studies, Vescio, Ross, and Adams (2008) find that the teaching culture and collaboration improved as teachers focused more on student learning. Guldberg and Pilkington (2006), in a study of an online professional learning community, identify the potential for members of a networked learning opportunity to move from basic sharing to thoughtful, meaningful conversations result in consensus on the qualities of best practice. Their findings hold promise for digital connected learning communities.

These findings in particular that of networked learning moving educators from sharing to conversations around practice provide additional validation for the premise that real change can occur from connecting and from the collaboration resulting from collegial relationships.

Anticipated Growth or Decline

The literature suggests growth in the use of professional learning communities to support teachers. Schmoker (2004) notes an increasing number of educators and researchers promoting the type of collaboration found in professional learning communities. Moreover, professional organizations indicate interest in professional learning communities, according to DuFour (2007). Both Fullan (2006) and Richardson (2005) note increased interest among teachers, and district websites also corroborate that interest.

With the increased interest in and growth of professional learning communities, the opportunities for extended collaborations in connected learning communities grow as well. As educators leverage the learning of other professional learning communities across networks and connected learning communities, the potential grows for systemic change in education.

Challenges and Dilemmas

Having challenges is a given. Various studies posit a variety of challenges and dilemmas that professional learning communities face, including demands for time (Hollins, McIntyre, DeBose, Hollins, & Towner, 2004) and the impact of school size; large schools often have a more difficult time developing a schoolwide sense of community (Stoll, Bolam, McMahon, Wallace, & Thomas, 2006). In addition, improvement is more challenging in secondary schools (Wells & Feun, 2007). Finally, the location of a school in a rural or isolated area, the climate of the student body, and the school’s history can affect the effectiveness of a learning community (Hollins et al., 2004), as well as issues arising from people unfamiliar with working together needing to engage in difficult conversations (Stoll et al., 2006; Wells & Feun, 2007).

Realizing those challenges of time, of developing a sense of community, and of developing collegial relationships that preclude educators working together, we’ve explored each of these topics in various chapters. With supportive distributed leadership, these challenges and others, can be met and overcome and the work of professional learning communities is one step farther toward becoming the change we want to see.

Use of Technology

A number of studies note the opportunities today’s technologies provide to facilitate the connection of expertise among members and to provide for interaction (Dalgarno & Colgan, 2007; Lieberman, 2000; MacIsaac, 2000). Lieberman (2000) sees the online venue as ideal for connecting and collaborating in the quest for an improved practice, while MacIsaac (2000) notes the potential of these venues for unleashing the boundaries of space and time. Smith (2003) notes that technology encourages those who have not been self-directed, independent learners. Finally, Jeppesen and Frederiksen (2006) find that educators who embrace collaboration in online environments are often innovators and risk takers and consequently can become significant contributors as community members learn together.

We see technology as the amplifier and enabler of connected learning. Not only does technology, in one way, address the challenge of time by creating opportunities for 24/7 anytime and anywhere connecting, collaborating, and reflecting, the literature findings also support the call for learners who collaborate, self-direct, and seek to continually develop expertise.

Communities of Practice

Etienne Wenger is considered to be a leader in the field. In his and others’ writings about communities of practice, deep collaboration around practice is a central characteristic. Members of communities of practice share a common concern for what it is that they do (Wenger, 1998). With that common concern, members interact and share stories of practice (Iverson & McPhee, 2002) with the goal of improving practice by collaboratively constructing knowledge (Wenger, 1998). They are distinguished by their deep level of collaboration (Stuckey, 2001). An interdependent system within the common culture of a community of practice (Barab & Duffy, 2000) gives life to the diverse membership from novice to expert (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Communities of practice grow from existing networks (Wenger et al., 2002) and similar to personal learning networks have recognized life cycles including emerging, maturing, active, and dispersing (Barab, MaKinster, & Sheckler, 2003; Preece, 2000; Wenger, 1998; Wenger et al., 2002). Despite dispersing, the community’s co-constructed knowledge becomes a part of practice.

Communities do come out of networks, and we contend that participation in communities characterized by deep collaboration can help educators collectively improve practice and learning for all students.


The literature identifies a number of theories underlying communities of practice. First, Lave and Wenger (1991) and McLaughlin (2003) note that theories of situated learning are found in communities of practice where learning and practice go hand-in-hand in a social environment and where discussions of practice among experts are indispensable to novice practitioners. Cognitive apprenticeship theory, which proposes professional learning in authentic workplace environments (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989) and collaborative learning between novice and expert, is evident. Research also suggests that communities of practice are based on a social view of learning (Barab, MaKinster, & Scheckler, 2003; Wenger, 1998) as well as situated cognition theory (Lave, 1991).

Connected learning communities align with and are grounded in these theories as we see educators of diverse skills and ideas collaborating to learn more about and improve practice.

Experience and Knowledge

In communities of practice, diverse members bring and share understandings of both tacit and explicit knowledge (Preece, 2004) and through social relationships view learning as process of changing practice (Brosnan & Burgess, 2003). Knowledge is found in individuals and in community (Wasko & Faraj, 2000). Consequently, Sharrot and Usoro (2003) view communities of practice as enablers and enhancers of knowledge development, and Wenger and Smith (2000) note that knowledge development is found in communities of practice.

The research supports the need for participation in communities where educators co-create knowledge around practice and leverage networked learning to create systemic change.

Effectiveness for Teacher Professional Development

Although some evidence suggesting the effectiveness of communities of practice for teacher learning is anecdotal (Lai, Pratt, Anderson, & Stigter, 2006), Chris Dede, from Harvard’s School of Education, notes that the pedagogical approach underlying more than half of teacher professional development is grounded in the communities of practice theory (Dede et al., 2005). Other research finds that communities of practice have significant potential to improve teaching and learning (Sherer, Shea, & Kristensen, 2003) and that participation in communities of practice benefits both students and teachers (Riel & Fulton, 2001). Not only do communities of practice encourage collaboration and knowledge construction (Ardickvili, Page, & Wentling, 2002; Buysee, Sparkman, & Wesley, 2003), they also have significant potential for improving teaching and learning (Sherer, Shea, & Kristensen, 2003).

From work in online communities of practice and this literature, we have learned that educator membership and participation in such communities enable powerful teacher learning that translates to improved learning for students. In these communities, because of the relationships that have developed, the real work of improving practice occurs the deep collaboration and the messy work of engaging in difficult conversations.

Anticipated Growth or Decline

The literature indicates that online communities of practice are increasing rapidly (Baran & Cagiltay, 2006). Wenger (2006) asserts that a growing number of organizations are seeking to improve practice through communities of practice. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology began an initiative focused on online communities of practice in response to the newly adopted National Educational Technology Plan vision of teacher professional development. In addition, when communities of practice emerge from or leverage face-to face-interactions, they are likely to grow (Nichani & Hung, 2002).

The time is right. Communities of practice are in a growth phase. The literature supports the three-pronged approach in suggesting that participation in communities of practice can be leveraged across and between professional learning communities, which are local in nature and meet face-to-face. In fact, our Powerful Learning Practice model works with locally situated teams of educators who come together in an online community of practice.

Use of Technology

As more communities of practice move to online spaces, using technology to support collaboration and knowledge building is crucial. As Riel and Fulton (2001) note, technology supports the community’s interactions. In addition, technology needs to be designed for sociability (Cothrel & Williams, 1999; Davenport & Hall, 2002; Kling & Courtwright, 2003; Schwen & Hara, 2003). Finally, effective networked technology supports the evolution of practice (Riel & Polin, 2004), influencing the co-construction of knowledge.

These findings correlate with our experiences with online communities of practice. The significance of designing for sociability can’t be overstated; those features that enhance sharing and co-creation of content impact the development of collegial relationships that are prerequisites to meaningful collaboration around improving practice. We are convinced that technology magnifies the potential for learning across communities, learning which when translated to practice will transform education for our students.

Personal Learning Networks

Although the body of literature on personal learning networks may not be as expansive as that on professional learning communities, numerous studies note the openness, connectedness, and personalized characteristics of personal learning networks. Personal learning networks are just that personal (Berge & McElvaney, 2009; Johnson, Levine & Smith, 2009) and as such are composed of various connections including blogs, images, audio, and people (Downes, 2006) that provide learners with links to the world (Illich, 1970). With their open content (Downes, 2007b), personal learning networks are decentralized, distributed, democratized, and dynamic (Downes, 2006) as learners select resources about their own interests, seek out diverse voices (Berge & McElvaney, 2009) to deepen learning, and are free to turn to other areas of interest. Characterized by sharing (Downes, 2009; Grosseck & Holotescu, 2009; Ivanova, 2009) and reciprocity, personal learning networks are one component in the shift from an individual understanding to an understanding that is more systemic (Borgatti & Foster, 2003). Learners grow their personal learning networks in public spaces where people gather through mediating technology (boyd, 2007); these spaces share properties of persistence, searchability, and replicability (boyd, 2007). Consequently, learners can replicate, to the extent they desire, the characteristics of other’s personal learning networks, and because of the mediating technology, learners can search and locate resources and ideas that have been posted in public. Often personal learning networks are seen as ways of organizing connections (Siemens, 2003). Similar to change adoption and technology adoption, personal learning networks’ growth and use may be characterized by stages, which Utecht (2008) identifies as immersion, evaluation, know-it-all, perspective, and balance.

Connected learners leverage the potential for personalized learning through the diverse connections they seek and select for their learning. As they develop personal learning networks, they can bring the networks’ ideas to deepen knowledge in their communities.


In contrast to professional learning communities, the literature on personal learning networks clearly points to connectivism and learner-centered approaches as the underlying theories. Siemens views learning as creating a network of connections and finding patterns (Siemens, 2005b, 2006, 2008), which supports the path for learners in creating personal learning networks connections with people, resources, and objects. In addition, Darken and Sibert (1996) view personal learning networks through the lens of a learner who uses cues to achieve mastery.

The paradigm for sense making for many connected educators is connectivism. In our connected learning model, a network of personalized connections is an essential component that broadens learning potential.

Experience and Knowledge

Research suggests the knowledge educators bring to personal learning networks is distributed across the network and found in the connections (Downes, 2006; Siemens, 2005).

In contrast to the knowledge brought to PLCs around relationships and the ability to come to consensus, educators bring to PLNs the knowledge found in the connections that may be diverse and with which educators may disagree. Learners, as indicated in the connected learning dispositions, acquire the knowledge needed to participate meaningfully in both the network and community.

Effectiveness for Teacher Professional Development

PLNs are viewed as an effective venue for sharing globally and for facilitating teacher learning as they enable access to content, experts, and global connections with fellow learners (Siemens, 2008). PLNs also play a vital part in managing environments of information that is complex (Wright, 2007), which aptly describes our society faced with an overabundance information. Knowledge creation, evaluation, and sharing occur in interactions in networks (Ivanova, 2009) as they enhance lifelong learning (Siemens, 2003). Lastly, it has been noted that successful networks for learners have been developed around readings, links, blog posts, images, user-created lessons, and others’ reactions and feedback (Grosseck & Holotescu, 2009).

Our connected learning mode, which this literature supports, clearly views PLNs as one of three prongs for teacher learning. Managing information in complex environments and sharing are important skills for educators that can be acquired through the building of and participation in personal learning networks.

Anticipated Growth or Decline

Interest in and growth of PLNs has been noted as educators contend with enormous technology shifts. Siemens (2008) notes significant growth in interest in and research on networks and also suggests that there is a growing dependence on networks to deal with complex changes in society (Siemens, 2008). As they believe there is always need for educators to update skills, Lewis and Romiszowski (1996) predict continued growth in PLNs.

As with PLCs, PLNs are in a growth phase. Hence, the time is right to seize the opportunity to adapt the concept of CLCs and enhance the potential for shifts in practice as educators learn and grow across both networks and communities.

Use of Technology

Although PLNs are not new, their potential has expanded exponentially with the affordances of current technology. There has been a significant growth of networked technologies for learning both formal and informal (Siemens, 2008), technologies that create the means for dynamic interaction (Siemens, 2003). These technologies enable the finding, synthesizing, and evaluating information (Conole, de Laat, Dillon, & Darby, 2006) and, in addition, allow for personalization (Berge & McElvaney, 2009).

Consequently, current learning networks, constructed by connected learners, have the capacity to be very personal. Connected educators more easily can locate meaningful connections as technology again amplifies the possibilities for learning.


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 CREDIT: This section is Appendix A from the book- The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age  written by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter-Hall. Published by Solution Tree Press (2012).

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